Reflections on May Readings

by joshcbramlett

When I last left off at this blog I was reading “American Lion” and wrestling with the problems of Andrew Jackson. I did manage to finish the book, which was a good book, but it was not an enjoyable experience due to the cold reality of Jackson’s life and prejudices. Also since I last left off, a group known as “Women on 20s” promoted an online vote in which Harriet Tubman was chosen as a nominee to replace Old Hickory on the $20. It will be interesting to see what comes of this, and of course it’s also interesting that Jackson is even on our currency due to his campaign against the 2nd Bank of the U.S. (Not to mention the Indian Removal Act, and the fact Jackson was a slave owner while Tubman freed slaves)

In the debates that came from news outlets posting the Tubman story on FB I was continually amused about the argument in comments that “only presidents should be on currency.” I’m sure Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton would be delighted to learn they were posthumously named presidents without having to do any of the work.

FranklinSpeaking of Franklin…my favorite book I read this month was Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin,” but I’m not sure it’s as much due to Isaacson as it was to learning about Franklin. As Isaacson points out, in today’s world we typically only think of Franklin as the logo for investment firms (or basketball teams) and not as the living, breathing genius of a human he once was. Isaacson notes how every generation of Americans have viewed Franklin’s life differently, so I suppose making him a logo is just our age’s interpretation. Still, after reading this book I believe it is crucial that we education our students more about the life and work of Franklin, not only as a scientist but for his work as a diplomat and founding father. I will admit I was largely ignorant of a lot of his work until I read this book which is why it was such an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Also…there should be no questions about his staying on our currency.

There are many biographies about Franklin to choose from but if you’re looking for one, you could do worse than Isaacson. He spends quite a bit of time talking about Franklin’s own “Autobiography” and I am somewhat interested in reading it but after reading another book I’m more interested in a different figure’s personal writings.

grant final victoryThat different figure would be Ulysses S. Grant, and after reading “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Flood I am determined to read Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” as soon as I come across them in a library. Flood’s book about the final year of Grant’s life was one that really changed my perception about the 18th president. Growing up, particularly in the South, the usual thing you hear is that Grant was the drunk while Lee was the gentleman, but this book by Flood paints a much different picture. In this book, we see Grant, the dying man, the grandfather, the author, the friend, the husband. It’s a relatively short book, it only took a few hours to read, but it has an enormous amount of material and deeper meaning. Of particular note is the relationship between Grant and Mark Twain, who published his memoirs. I found myself reading this book nonstop until I finished it, and highly recommend it. I should note that it is not exactly a happy book, it made me very melancholic, but really portrayed how important Grant was to our country and the people of the time. He was a unifying figure at the time of his death, and someone I believe we should pay more attention to in history and civics classes. He’s not merely the muddy and rugged general who Robert E. Lee surrendered to, he’s one of the great Americans of the 19th century and I’m the better for having learned about his determination to finish his memoirs while dying of cancer.

madison giftI’ve finished two other books since the last blog I wrote. The first was “Madison’s Gift” by David Stewart. Madison’s Gift recounts his relationships with Washington, Monroe, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Dolley Madison. It was in this book I gained an appreciation for Madison as well as Hamilton. Whereas Thomas Jefferson seemed to completely despise Hamilton, Madison did respect him as they had worked so hard together as the authors of the Federalist Papers. However, this book does leave you with an overall negative impression of Hamilton, and a sense that Madison felt his vision was the correct one for the nation. But his relationship with Hamilton was only one aspect of the book. It was interesting to learn about how Madison helped Washington in the early days of the first administration and how they ultimately drifted apart, largely in part because of the diverging political opinions. I found myself wanting to read more about Dolley Madison, who is still one of our greatest First Ladies.

washington circleAfter Madison’s Gift I was still in the mood for learning more about the founding era and George Washington in particular. Luckily the library had the new book, “Washington’s Circle” by David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler. It was about the cabinets of Washington’s presidency. I came away from this book newly aware of how Washington could shut people away from his life, whether it was his old slave William Lee or his old neighbor George Mason. This book treated the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton in a balanced fashion and was also balanced in its depiction and focus on the other cabinet members such as Knox, Randolph, and the second cabinet. I still have yet to read a biography focused solely on George Washington but I had always been curious about his administration and this book perfectly filled in that picture for me.

Reading these books about the founding fathers has now made my new priority to read Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton.” After reading books about Thomas Jefferson I was left with an impression of Hamilton as a villain, but “Madison’s Gift” and subsequently “Washington’s Circle” made me realize that it is all up to the interpretation of the biographer or the particularly historical figure and his or her opinion of Hamilton. I have read reviews that Chernow’s book is overly positive in his portrayal of Hamilton but I feel compelled to learn about him in a story focused on him, not just as a character in someone else’s play.

— I should note that in my last blog I was planning on reading books on Abraham Lincoln, I will get to those in time. I own the books on Lincoln but in the past month I’ve been renting the books mentioned above from the library. I can’t read all the books I own or I’ll have nothing to do when I’m old and retired.